Golden State Blues
Another California Rail Fail

Cost increases and construction delays continue to make a mockery of the early, rosy projections of the attainability of California’s high-speed rail boondoggle. The latest example, from Governing magazine:

It was supposed to be the easiest section of the high-speed rail project: a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley that would serve as the testing ground for the high-speed trains before tracks are expanded south to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco.

But it’s proving to be more difficult than anticipated. On Wednesday, the High-Speed Rail Authority informed the Obama administration, in a contract amendment, that it expects the Central Valley track to be complete by 2022 instead of 2018 as originally projected.

Difficulty buying property and legal challenges contributed to the new timeline.

This four-year delay—on a section of track going through one of the least-populated and geographically amenable parts of the state—is just a taste of what is likely to come (if this trial run is even successful) when the Rail Authority tries to break ground in Silicon Valley or tunnel through the mountains north of Los Angeles. Costs are sure to be revised upward (the project already faces a $25 billion funding gap) and construction timelines are sure to be pushed back even further as the HSR fields lawsuits and addresses the unexpected engineering challenges that accompany all massive public works projects.

Ongoing delays make it even less likely that the train, once it is completed, will actually be a useful addition to California’s infrastructure. Telecommuting continues to reduce the demand for long-distance transportation, and new technologies, from self-driving cars to more ambitious ideas like the hyperloop, promise to revolutionize the way Americans get from point A to point B without such a massive transfer or resources to contractors, bondholders, and construction unions. The high-speed rail increasingly looks like a last-ditch (and poorly managed) effort to project 20th-century ideas about transportation into the future, rather than a carefully-conceived investment in the economic needs of future generations.

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